Social Welfare Bill 2015: Second Stage

I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."

This budget and the Social Welfare Bill are designed to build a strong economy and decent society. Budget 2016 is a carefully designed, responsible, interlocking budget where different pieces come together to form an overall picture, a picture of a country moving in the right direction, with living standards being gradually raised in every home.

The social welfare package included in the budget has similarly been carefully designed to ensure a number of core groups will benefit and, as I said, to provide for a decent society and improvements in the social welfare structure. It has been designed to include pensioners, families with children, including lone parents, carers and people with disabilities. It has also been designed to get people back to work because, although we now have a 9.3% unemployment rate and the rate has fallen again this month, there are still more people out of work than we would like. The Labour Party and I, as Tánaiste, want to move to a full employment society, with work for everyone who needs and wants a job.

I know that some of the Deputies on the Opposition benches will, for opposition's sake, vote against the Bill. Let me tell them why, on the basis of the clearest evidence, they should support it instead if they truly want to see the development of a strong economy and a decent society and if they want to assist the most vulnerable in society.

My Department has carried out a social impact assessment of the main tax and social welfare measures in budget 2016. This assessment is based on the tax-welfare micro-simulation model, SWITCH, developed by the ESRI. Social impact assessment is an evidence-based methodology which estimates the likely effects of key policies on household incomes, families, poverty and incentives to take up employment. The assessment has found that average household incomes will increase by 1.6% or €14.30 per week as a result of budget 2016. Importantly, there are higher than average gains for the bottom two quintiles, that is, the lowest income households in society, while the smallest gain is in the top quintile. The biggest beneficiaries are lone parents and dual and non-earning couples with children, with an average gain of 2%. As I said, the budget is focused particularly on families with children, whether parenting with mum and dad or where the mother is parenting on her own. Non-earning lone parents and couples with children with a single earner fare above average, gaining around 1.8%.

I should emphasise that child benefit expenditure, although universal, favours lower income households. Therefore, budget 2016 will deliver considerably bigger gains for the poorest households. If any Member of the House votes against the Bill, it will be because he or she is placing politics before poorer households.

Coming to specific measures, throughout the worst of the crisis we protected the State pension. I am particularly pleased to provide for an above inflation increase of €3 a week for pensioners and carers aged 66 years and over. There is also an increase of €2 a week for adult dependants aged under 66 years and an increase of €2.70 for adult dependants aged 66 years or over. These will benefit 583,000 pensioners and over 93,000 qualified adults who live with pensioners. It is the first weekly rate increase for pensioners since 2009. From talking to pensioners I know that there is a very significant welcome for the fact that, for the first time since 2009, we are able to increase rates. While I would love it if I had €5 or €10 a week to distribute to every pensioner, the budget has been crafted in order that, from an economic point of view and in terms of getting people in businesses back to work, we have a balance which will assist the different groups in society, particularly those who are less well off and vulnerable.

I will also be making regulations in the coming weeks for the payment of a 75% Christmas bonus which will benefit older people, carers, people with disabilities, long-term jobseekers and lone parents at what is often a financially stressful time of year. For a single person on disability allowance, this will mean a bonus payment of €141. For a pensioner couple, both of whom are in receipt of the non-contributory State pension, it will mean a bonus payment of €327.50 or over €6 a week to the household. That same household will receive an extra €3 on 1 January for anybody in receipt of a contributory pension or €2.70 for other adults who do not have a pension in their own right. This is a considerable boost to the household income of pensioners.

Some 1.23 million people will receive the Christmas bonus in the first week of December and I make absolutely no apologies for paying it. As Tánaiste and Labour Party leader, my focus is on trying to ensure we can improve things for every person, not just a few. Pensioners asked me on numerous occasions to maintain the core pension rate and we did. They asked us to maintain the free travel scheme and we did. They asked us particularly, as circumstances improved, to restore the Christmas bonus. We have been able to do this, restoring 25% of the payment last year and 75% this year. Pensioners built up the country and supported their children and grandchildren when things were very difficult. The Christmas bonus is also paid to anyone with a disability, on long-term social welfare payments, the long-term unemployed and anybody parenting on his or her own.

When the Government entered office, there were grave fears that the numbers unemployed would exceed 500,000 and the deficit in the Social Insurance Fund was heading towards €2 billion. The rate of unemployment would eventually peak at 15.1%. As of this week, it stands at 9.3% and is continuing to fall rapidly, thanks to the sustained focus of the Government on returning the economy to growth and helping people to get back to work. As a result of returning to work in high volumes and more employers being able to reward employees with pay increases, the Social Insurance Fund has been transformed. The 2016 budget provides for an increase in Social Insurance Fund income to almost €8.9 billion in 2016, with expenditure estimated at €8.67 billion. This means that there will be a projected surplus of €216 million in the fund, the first such surplus since 2007. This means that if we can continue to increase the surplus, those who have contributed to their pensions can be confident that they will receive their pensions and that we will be able to improve them as we go along.

The increase in the national minimum wage to €9.15 an hour from 1 January is hugely important for low-paid workers. I pledged earlier this year that if we increased the minimum wage, we would address any PRSI step effect arising from such an increase. We are doing so in this Bill. Put simply, the measures will reduce the weekly PRSI bill for over 88,000 employees and ensure the benefits of an increase in the minimum wage will be felt by all those in receipt of it.

This is, of course, in addition to the gains from the USC changes announced on budget day.

This Bill provides for a €5 increase in the rate of child benefit - the second budget in a row in which child benefit has been increased. This will bring the monthly rate of child benefit from €135 to €140 per child with effect from 1 January 2016. Child benefit is a crucial support to families through difficult times, in particular to low and middle-income families. The increase will benefit 623,000 families and almost 1.2 million children. The introduction of a paternity benefit scheme will take effect next September, as was announced in the budget. The family income supplement income threshold is also being increased by €5 for each of the first two children per week from next January. This will mean an additional €3 or €6 per week for over 59,000 low-income working families - benefiting over 131,000 children. I will shortly make regulations to provide for an increase in the earnings disregard for the jobseeker's transition payment from €60 to €90 per week. This improved disregard will apply to existing and new recipients from next January. All earnings above €90 will be assessed at 50% from January. They are currently assessed at 60%. Funding for the school meals programme will increase by €3 million next year to €42 million. The school meals programme currently benefits 217,000 children in over 1,700 schools and other organisations. The allocation of an additional €3 million in 2016 will provide for breakfasts for an additional 27,800 pupils or a lunch or light meal for almost 12,000 additional pupils.

The strong economic recovery that we can see around us is, above all, a jobs-led recovery and this is crucial because secure and fairly paid work remains the best protection against poverty. The budget is, therefore, a pro-work budget. The budget announced increases of €2.50 per week in the top-up payments for jobseekers availing of community employment, the rural social scheme, Gateway, Job Initiative and other such schemes. Earlier this year, I introduced a new incentive called the back to work family dividend which helps jobseekers with families to return to work. This dividend provides an incentive of €1,550 per child in the first year of employment or self-employment and half that amount in the second year. Over 9,500 families and 15,000 children benefit from the dividend. These are families with children going back to work. This measure, when taken together with the employer incentives such as JobsPlus, will ensure that long-term jobseekers also benefit from the strong recovery in the labour market.

Apart from the rate increases I have already mentioned, the fuel allowance is being increased by €2.50 per week to €22.50 for the duration of the fuel season. This is another targeted measure and will benefit almost 381,000 households. The name of the respite care grant scheme is being changed to the carer's support grant. In light of the hugely important role carers play in our society, I am particularly pleased to announce that the rate of the grant is to be increased by €325 to €1,700 from 1 June 2016. It will be payable to around 86,000 carers next year. In another improvement, carer's allowance will now be paid for 12 weeks after the death of the person being cared for instead of the current duration of six weeks. I thank the carers' organisations which made that proposal to me in the course of our pre-budget discussions.

I want to use this opportunity to refer to the rent supplement scheme. My Department is currently providing support to approximately 63,800 people living in private rented accommodation. The cost of the scheme in 2015 will be over €298 million. Between rent supplement, the housing assistance payment and the rental accommodation scheme, the State is currently accommodating almost 100,000 households via the private rented market. Given the size of the State's involvement in the private rented sector, any general increase to rent supplement would serve only to increase rents overall. That would particularly affect low-income households which are renting, including students and low-paid workers. Instead, my Department is operating a framework which ensures that families or individuals at risk of losing their rented accommodation can get urgent assistance from the community welfare service. Department officials will on a case-by-case basis increase the rent supplement limits to ensure people stay in their homes. To date, more than 4,400 households have had their rent supplement increased. The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government and the Minister for Finance will in the coming days finalise a housing package which will address both the crucial issues of supply and providing greater certainty for tenants.

I am very concerned about reports in recent days of mistreatment of workers on some, and hopefully few, Irish fishing trawlers. Following a decision at Cabinet yesterday, the Government is immediately setting up an inter-departmental task force to examine the complex issues arising. The aim is to formulate a co-ordinated and effective cross-Government approach. My Department's special investigation unit, which in particular tackles fraud, will actively participate and assist in any multi-agency approach that emerges or is required in the context of Government-interdepartmental decisions or proposed joint initiatives in this sector. We do not want to see any workers taken from tens of thousands of miles away, put on board small fishing vessels and, if one is to judge by the story, having their passports taken and their ability to go on land restricted in some cases. This is an absolute disgrace in light of the traditions and history of this country. The Government and I are determined to see an end to this.

I will now turn to the specific measures in the Bill. Section 1 provides for the Short Title of the Bill, its construction and collective citation with the Social Welfare Acts. Section 2 provides for the definition of certain common terms used in Part 2. Section 3 provides for an increase in the rate of contributory State pension. It also provides in respect of persons who are 66 years or older for increases in the rates of the following schemes: widow's, widower's and surviving civil partner's contributory pension; death benefit; and disablement pension. It also provides for increases in rates for qualified adults. Section 4 and Schedule 1 provide for an increase in the personal and qualified adult rates of the non-contributory State pension. It also provides for an increase in the rate of carer's allowance for recipients who are 66 years or older. This will be particularly important for people on a half-rate carer's allowance who are looking after their spouse or partner in addition to whatever State pensions they may be entitled to. Section 5 and Schedule 2 provide for the renaming of the respite care grant, which will now be the carer's support grant. Section 6 provides for an increase of €325 to the carer's support grant from €1,375 to €1,700. Section 7 provides for an increase in the monthly rate of child benefit from €135 to €140.

Section 8 provides for an increase of €5 per week in the family income supplement, FIS, earnings threshold for families with one child and €10 per week in the thresholds for families with two or more children. This measure comes into operation on 7 January 2016. Section 9 provides for the period in which carer's allowance is payable following the death of the person being cared for, to be extended to a period of 12 weeks.

Section 10 provides for two changes in pay-related social insurance, PRSI: a new tapered PRSI credit is being introduced for employees insured at class A whose earnings are between €352.01 and €424 per week. The upper threshold at which the lower 7.8% class A rate of employer PRSI applies is being increased from €356 to €376 per week. These measures take effect from 1 January 2016.

I wish to advise the House that I also intend to introduce amendments on Committee Stage on a number of matters. Earlier this year we saw the historic result of the marriage equality referendum. The subsequent legislation, the Marriage Act 2015, was enacted on 29 October. On Committee Stage I will be bringing forward amendments to the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005 in light of the enactment of that Act.

I will also be bringing forward amendments to provide for the inclusion of registered nurses within the definition of medical assessor in the Social Welfare Consolidation Act 2005. These nurses will be employees of the Department. Other amendments will cover the inclusion of credit unions providing personal micro-credit loans among the specified bodies for the purposes of the household budgeting scheme, and the correction in the Bill, as published, of the figure for the FIS earnings threshold for a family of seven children. I also intend to bring forward an amendment of the Pensions Act 1990 to enable the Financial Services Ombudsman to carry out the role, duties and functions of the Pensions Ombudsman in light of the intended merging of those two offices.

Over the recent very difficult and challenging years, our social welfare system has continued to play an essential role safeguarding the most vulnerable people in our society. Having protected that very strong system through the worst of times, we are now strengthening it further in better times. The social protection measures contained in this Bill and in budget 2016 are built on the foundations of the recovery. The clear objectives of these measures are to secure improvements in living standards and to create greater opportunities for every person, every family and every community.

We have a significant social welfare package this year, including the measure concerning the Christmas bonus, improvements in a range of payments, benefiting in particular pensioners and retired people, people on disability allowance, carers, families with children and families at work, who have children and are on low incomes. That is made possible by all the taxpayers, workers and employers in the country who pay PRSI. The fact that so many more businesses and individual workers are getting back to work has been the mechanism that has enabled us to provide for the improvements and changes we have made in the Bill. I have a duty to those people to ensure that every cent of their PRSI contributions is used to improve the status of the Social Insurance Fund, which was almost wrecked when I came into office and heading for a deficit of €2 billion. This will for the first time be back in surplus next year so that pensioners and contributors can have confidence in the availability of the retirement pension in this country. I must also make sure that all social protection and welfare money goes to those for whom it is intended, that they get the payments they are entitled to and that the special investigations unit, inspectors and departmental staff will do their best to ensure that nobody can defraud the social welfare system or take money that rightly should go to people such as pensioners.

I thank all the staff in the Department who faced very difficult times during the crisis but have transformed the Department from the payments Department of old to one that provides a good quality public employment service, working with employers to get people back to work. It is important people recognise that the public servants in this country, working in the Department of Social Protection have made a very special contribution to individual lives and to the recovery of the country in general.

I want to be associated with the Minister’s concluding remarks in respect of the staff in the Department.

I detect a certain defensiveness in the Minister’s speech. She is challenging us, saying how dare we vote against this Social Welfare Bill 2015 and how dare we oppose the huge largesse she is distributing to the poorest and neediest in society. The Minister’s approach seems to be the one adopted by the famous playwright, Noël Coward, who once said, “I can take any amount of criticism so long as it is unqualified praise”.

The more I listen to the Minister the more I am driven to conclude that she has very little empathy with, and less understanding of, the poorest and neediest people in this country. After all, we know from advance excerpts from a book about to be published that she objected strenuously to taking on the responsibilities of the Department of Social Protection. She was, we are told, consumed with anger when she was offered this lowly post. She wanted to be strutting her stuff on the world stage. According to the book, she promised Deputy Gilmore that he would regret the day he put her into the Department of Social Protection. That is one promise she kept.

I am somewhat reluctant to interrupt the Deputy but I am obliged to because in this instance the Deputy is restricted to speaking on the Bill.

I will speak on the Bill and the budget of which it is an integral part.

The Minister says that anybody voting against this Bill is voting against the improvements for the poorest and most needy in society. The Minister’s speech seems to consist largely of praising herself for giving back a part of what she has already taken from those people. I do oppose this Bill but I support the improvements, the €3 per week, the increase in the fuel allowance, the restoration of the respite care grant, the increase in child benefit, etc. I oppose it because it is an integral part of the Government’s fifth regressive budget in a row.

If anybody doubts that I take myself as an example. I am here, courtesy of the people of Limerick city, in a very well-paid job, earning €87,500 a year, €1,700 per week gross. I did a small calculation and the budget benefits me to the tune of over €900 per annum. I have a very good friend who is in receipt of social protection payments. He lost his job when a business closed down in Limerick about two and a half years ago. He has had some part-time employment since. He has had various periods of unemployment and is now unemployed. He is a single man in receipt of €188 per week, paying rent to Limerick City and County Council. He gains, according to my calculations, €95 per annum, approximately a tenth of what I gain as a highly paid Deputy. The only word I can conjure to describe that is "regressive".

Prior to the budget, there was a huge income differential between that gentleman and me. Now it has increased to the tune of approximately €800 per annum and I understand that, as a result of the Lansdowne Road agreement which will kick in from 1 January, I will gain another €1,000 with the result that the differential between that gentleman and me will be €1,800. An unemployed couple will gain €157 per year, whereas a couple with two incomes, with a gross income of €125,000, will gain over nine times as much, or exactly €1,408 per annum.

The Minister referred to the benefits for the lower quintiles of the population. Last year, the last period for which official figures are available, the top 10% of households were in receipt of 24% of all disposable income, whereas the bottom quintile, the bottom 10%, received 3% of all disposable income, exactly one eighth of that of the top 10%. The gap has widened as a result of the budget and this Social Welfare Bill and I am only talking about income. If one takes into account the fact that access to, and control of, capital is exclusively within the preserve of the upper echelons of society, the gap between rich and poor has become dangerously wide.

When he refers to the social welfare provisions included in the budget, the Minister for Finance usually treats us to some poetry, but he did not quote any this year, no doubt worried that we would be reminded of what he said last year when, inspired by Robert Frost, he promised to travel the road less travelled. There has obviously been a change in attitude and now he is travelling the road marked, "How to win a general election". I will fill the deficit by quoting a famous Irish poet, Oliver Goldsmith:

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,

Where wealth accumulates and men decay.

The Minister, Deputy Joan Burton, referred extensively to what she gave in the budget. Yes, there was an increase of €2.50 per week in the fuel allowance, but the allowance is now paid for only 26 weeks. According to what I learned in arithmetic class, €2.50 multiplied by 26 comes to €65. The Minister has reduced the period for which the fuel allowance is paid from 32 weeks to 26 and €6 multiplied by 20 is €120. Having taken away €120, she has given back €65 and praises herself for it.

I support the increase in child benefit, but I also recall the election posters during the last general election promising faithfully that the Labour Party would not reduce child benefit. In fact, it did reduce it, the reductions causing a great deal of misery and hardship, made directly contrary to promises it had made and which it had advertised from one end of the country to the other. The increase in child benefit, allied to that granted last year, will bring us almost but not quite back to where we were when the Government took office.

Several years ago, when the respite care grant was reduced, we warned the Minister of the consequences, of the hardship and misery it would cause, but she proceeded anyway. Now, in the shadow of a general election, she has decided to restore it. I would like her to clarify one point. The name has been changed to the carer's support grant. As I understand it, people who are not in receipt of carer's allowance can still qualify for the respite care grant if they do not, for some reason, qualify for carer's allowance.

Yes, it is exactly the same.

I support an increase in the Christmas bonus, but a huge section of the population is shackled to poverty which is all year round, not just at Christmas.

The Minister devoted a good part of her contribution to the elderly. This is the first pension increase since 2009-10, but the rate of inflation since the last increase has been running at 4.5%. In normal circumstances that would represent an erosion of 4.5% in the purchasing power of what the people concerned are getting, but the position is somewhat worse than this. The inflation basket includes a range of items which the elderly would not purchase and the inflation figure for the primary purchases made by the elderly, of whom 70% rely exclusively on the old age pension, would be closer to 6% or 7%. The pension rate in 2010 would be worth some €10 or €11 less in purchasing power in 2015 and 2016. That would be bad enough in itself, but we must add to it the fact that the telephone rental allowance has been taken from the elderly, the household benefits package which was enjoyed almost exclusively by the elderly has been slashed, the method of calculation for contributory old age pension has been dramatically changed to the detriment of pensioners, there have been cuts to rent supplement and reductions in the higher rates of disability allowance and invalidity pension for the over-65s. There has been a severe restriction of tax relief on medical insurance contributions, which disproportionately affects the elderly, while the threshold for the drugs payment scheme has been increased from €120 to €144 per month or by approximately €5.50 per week, almost double the increase in pensions for the over-65s. Housing adaptation and mobility grant aid for the elderly and the disabled has been reduced quite considerably. There have also been changes in eligibility for medical cards for the over-70s and the loss of the bereavement grant, as well as many more cuts.

On top of all this must be added a raft of new taxes, charges and impositions. For example, the elderly are now subject to water tax, with no account being taken of an inability to pay water charges, and they are also subject to property tax, again with no account being taken of ability to pay. Those who try to provide for themselves are subject to a pension levy which has taken €2.5 billion out of their savings, while hundreds of thousands of home help hours have been slashed. Contributions to the fair deal scheme have been increased by 50%; carbon tax has been increased, while the waiver for refuse collections has been abolished. The VAT rate applicable to most of the elderly and pensioners which was 21% has been increased to 23%. An increase of €3 per week is supposed to compensate the elderly for these three things. The Minister said she had been talking to a number of pensioners who had been showering her with praise for her performance, but I have been talking to a different group who have something very different to say.

I agree with the beginning of a process to bring about tax equalisation between the self-employed and PAYE workers, but I deplore the fact that the Minister has steadfastly refused for the past five years to provide a safety net for those who set up on their own. We are told it is impossible to introduce a system of social insurance under which the self-employed can apply for jobseeker's benefit if they lose their job. We are told it is impossible to provide social insurance if they get sick and lose their livelihood due to illness, despite the fact that we are almost unique in not having such a system. Other countries have such a system, including Germany, Sweden, Austria, France and even smaller ones such as Lithuania and Romania, but we cannot and this is supposed to be a country which encourages entrepreneurship.

I have no problem with the €550 tax credit that is being given to the self-employed. However, is it not somewhat perverse that €550 could be given to somebody who might be running a very successful business and earning millions in profits and yet we cannot devise a system to allow people, if they wish, to contribute to a social insurance system which gives them a safety net if they lose their business for one reason or another particularly due to illness?

The Social Welfare Bill is significant not for what is in it, but for what is not in it. We calculate that there have been 40 social welfare cuts during the regime of this Government. Two of them have been fully restored and another has been half restored - so two and a half down, 37 and a half to go. For example, there has been no reversal of the cut to the school clothing and footwear allowance, which represents an imposition on the most vulnerable because one almost has to pass a starvation test to qualify for that allowance. It has been slashed to the tune of approximately €40 million and yet there has been no reversal of that.

There has been no reversal of the increase in disallowance of illness benefit from the first three days to the first six days of illness. I have come across many cases where employers do not pay this which effectively means that somebody who cannot work due to illness must now fend for themselves for six days instead of three. There has been no reversal of the cut in invalidity pensions for the over-65s or the cut in disability allowance for the over-65s. There has been no reversal of the cut in maternity benefit, which is costing expectant mothers on average €3,500 a year. There has been no change to the adverse changes in the farm assist scheme. There has been no reversal of the increases in minimum rent contributions for rent allowance purposes. The Tánaiste referred to the discretion that welfare officers have. According to figures recently released to me, there have been in excess of 600 applications for that discretion in Limerick city alone and only two have been successful.

There has been no reversal of the increase in the threshold for the drugs payment scheme. There has been no reversal of the restrictions in eligibility for the State pension scheme. Jobseeker's benefit for part-time workers was changed to the disadvantage of those workers and there has been no reversal of that. There has been no reversal of the reduction in the employer redundancy rebate. There has been no reversal of the household benefits package changes. There has been no reversal of the changes from nine months to six months for jobseeker's benefit. There has been no change in the reduction of the provision for exceptional needs payments. There has been no change in the abolition of the €300 cost of education allowance. There have been 40 cuts and two and a half reversals.

The net result of these five regressive budgets is something very interesting to behold. According to the Department of Finance, we are likely to enjoy growth of approximately 4.5% to 5% this year with a projected growth next year of 5% - although Professor Honohan might disagree. Nevertheless and despite the burgeoning corporation tax receipts we heard about only today, over 390,000 people are living in consistent poverty, which is double the 2008 figure.

Some 1.4 million, or nearly one in three of the population, are experiencing some form of deprivation. Some 700,000 people are at risk of poverty, of whom 211,000 are children. More than one in every six children and one in every ten people over the age of 65 are at risk of poverty. We still have social welfare rates that are about €20 per week below the poverty line. Food poverty is rampant and the Government has totally reneged on its solemn commitment deliberately given to measure the impact of each budget in advance to ensure it is poverty proofed - and no wonder.

Not today but on other occasions, the Tánaiste has often adverted to the importance of social transfers in combating poverty and taking people out of poverty. The Government has taken in excess of €1.8 billion out of the social welfare budget and given back about €500 million. That is a net reduction of about €1.4 billion. If she says that social transfers help to combat poverty, is the corollary not true that a reduction in social transfers tends to increase poverty?

On several occasions the Tánaiste has claimed to have made a difference in moving the entire social welfare system from what she likes to call a passive system to an active system. I wonder. Society is changing. We all agree that people's skills can become obsolete and they need to be retrained for new opportunities that present themselves. There was an activation scheme that predated the Tánaiste's arrival at the Department of Social Protection. I am not saying it was perfect; in fact, it was imperfect in many ways. However, the main focus should have been on improving that activation system. The money the Government is now spending on so-called activation would be better spent on improving and making that scheme more appropriate.

As I understand it, the Tánaiste has moved the system from one of activation to one of compulsion such that if somebody is offered a training or education course, regardless of how inappropriate to their circumstances or how useless it might prove to them in the future, they have to take it or suffer the consequences in terms of loss of social protection. The same applies if somebody is offered a job, regardless of how insecure or how low-paying and regardless of the conditions. I have come across people who were on social welfare and were offered jobs 50 km or 60 km away from their homes. Taking into account the expense of travelling to and from work, they would finish up worse off. Nevertheless they are compelled to take it up. That is the system now.

Of course, it is all based on a false assumption that the unemployed are lazy idle scroungers who must be forced to take up work. Of course, for the Irish people nothing could be further from the truth. All the evidence has shown that the overwhelming majority of Irish people would prefer a job to being unemployed. The net result of the changes introduced by the Government has been to develop a harsh, unsympathetic and authoritarian social welfare system that forces people to take training courses or accept work on lower wages or with worse conditions. The only people benefiting from that are employers.

Now an array of supervision, assessment and intervention faces anyone who is unfortunate enough to become unemployed. Only 100 people faced sanctions in 2011, rising to 5,300 in 2014 and the upward trend continues even though the numbers of unemployed are falling. This is only a small percentage of claimants and yet the threat is continually experienced by thousands of individuals with a gradual heightening intensity.

Beyond those directly affected by the sanctions, everybody is subject to a social welfare system that is now infinitely more precarious. The safety net we can expect if we lose our jobs has been transformed for the worse. The tragic irony is that there is no evidence that those types of sanctions, including cutting welfare as a means to change behaviour, actually work and numerous studies dispel the notion. A harsh social welfare system does not create jobs apart from those of the officers employed to investigate people. The vast amount of money spent on this would be better spent on matching people to suitable vacancies or suitable training.

The current system is almost a throwback to the English Poor Law Amendment Act 1834, which required people to take whatever was offered, regardless of how low-paying, demeaning or degrading, or else face the indignity of the workhouse.

That system was based on the contemporary economic theory that there is no such thing as unemployment and that if one leaves people with no alternative they will take any job regardless of how insecure, lowly paid or how much it disadvantages them even monetarily. That system is well known to us, thanks to Charles Dickens.

I thought Deputy O'Dea was going to say Charlie McCreevy.

It is well portrayed in Oliver Twist. We are almost back to the era of the workhouse, given that one must either take what is offered even if it means one is disadvantaged by it or else face sanctions. It is a throwback to the 1834 Poor Law (Amendment) Act. The last people I would expect to introduce a reverse into such a system is the Labour Party in government.

Any government in a democracy, regardless of its ideology, should be concerned about a widening of inequality. As I demonstrated, poverty is widely spread and very deep in this country, in particular among certain sections of the population. The English politician Joseph Chamberlain, who was a radical in his time but was far from being a Marxist, said on taking office, "My aim in life is to make life pleasanter for this great majority; I do not care if it becomes in the process less pleasant for the well-to-do minority". If that had been the policy of the Government, in particular the Labour section of the Government, for the past five years, this would be a fairer, better and more just society.

The Minister for Social Protection has consistently claimed that during her tenure, in her term of office of almost five years, she has made a difference. I agree with that. She certainly has made a difference. She has insulted the young, in particular young jobseekers, she has penurised the elderly, ignored the claims of carers, widows and the disabled, for whom nothing was done in the budget. She has introduced a social welfare system which would be the envy of the old Russian KGB. She has contrived to totally ignore the looming pension crisis for which she has departmental responsibility. She has contributed significantly to a system where the gap between rich and poor has widened inexorably in the past five years.

When I spoke on the equivalent Bill last year I left the last word to Social Justice Ireland. I am tired of quoting Social Justice Ireland; it has been so critical of the Minister, and I feel that I am echoing myself, so on this occasion I will leave the last word to the sagacious Marge Simpson who said, “I guess one person can make a difference. But most of the time, they probably shouldn't".

With budget 2016 the Government has made it clear how seriously out of step it is with the suffering of ordinary people. In this Bill the Minister seeks to give legislative effect to the meagre range of measures she announced in the budget.

The measures introduced in the budget are too little, too late and far too cynical. While I welcome the row-back due to pressure from myself and others, especially those who suffered the consequences of the cuts in social welfare rates, I would be happier if the Government had seen fit to take on board more of the proposals made by me and others on this side of the House and outside it. If those proposals were all taken on board we might have a progressive Social Welfare Bill that would be worth the ink in which it is written.

The restoration of the Christmas bonus is the measure that has been most lauded by those on the Government benches. However, Christmas comes but once a year and there are another 51 weeks. Those weeks have not been made any easier by the small change promised by the €3 to €6 increase in the family income supplement, FIS, the €3 increase in pensions, and the €2 here, €2.70 there for qualified dependants, or even by the restoration of the €5 she pillaged from children in cuts to child benefit over the years of the Government’s reign.

The restoration of the respite care grant is welcome, as is the increase in the period for which carer’s allowance is payable from six to 12 weeks. The Minister challenged us as to whether we would oppose the Bill for the sake of opposition. My record on social welfare Bills shows I have not taken such an approach. I have opposed the use of the guillotine on Bills which ensure all measures have not been adequately discussed but I have continuously welcomed small positive changes and I will do likewise today.

I welcome the tapered PRSI credit proposal, in line with the increased minimum wage. That is something Sinn Féin has sought. Whenever a positive change is introduced we have advocated that it would not be squirrelled away by the Government through tax increases or that it would result in people ending up in a different tax bracket, which ekes away every last cent.

The Government has prioritised tax cuts which favour the most well-off in society over public spending which would favour everyone else. The Minister should have listened to the people. Two thirds of those who were recently polled in what I think was an opinion poll in The Irish Times said they overwhelmingly wanted the Government to increase expenditure on public services, housing, homelessness, health, education and child care over tax cuts. That is what the public had to say.

More spending would have redistributed income and reduced inequality but the Government cynically decided to play election politics by throwing crumbs to the masses and favouring their friends with tax cuts. Could the Minister tell me where is the fairness in that? Over the course of the Government’s term in office it did not share the burden of austerity equally or fairly. A total of €30 billion was taken out of the economy in taxes and cuts during the recession. Some suffered greatly and others were protected. The Department of Social Protection cut nearly €3 billion in social welfare spending at a time of increased dependency on social welfare. Those figures alone speak volumes.

One of the central roles of a government is to protect its vulnerable citizens. In fact, the Government did the opposite and made the most vulnerable, the poorest, members of society shoulder the heaviest load even though the parties promised in the programme for Government that it sought to protect the young, the sick and the vulnerable. The Government picked the pockets of those people - from the cradle to the grave. The Government targeted the elderly, the disabled, lone parents, struggling low-income families with children, mothers and young children, jobseekers and the long-term unemployed with the most savage cuts over the course of the four consecutive budgets overseen by it in its term of office.

The Government cut core social welfare rates time and again, despite its denials. It relentlessly cut, cut, cut during periods of severe hardship when the less well-off in society should have had the benefit of the safety net of social transfers. The Government denies that inequality has risen during its term in office, yet in budget 2016 the gap between rich and poor has widened by €506 a year. In two years the gap between the rich and the poor has widened by €1,003 as a result of the Government’s budget decisions.

More than 376,000 people are living in consistent poverty. That is, almost one third of the population, 30.5%, experience two or more enforced types of deprivation. Households where the head of the household is parenting alone have the highest deprivation rates at 63% and the figure for households with people with a disability is 50%. Approximately one in six children and one in ten people aged over 65 are at risk of poverty.

These figures have firmly put paid to the lie that the recovery the Government has so often trumpeted is fair. Its budget decided to prioritise the better-off and give them the majority of available resources to the detriment of people in poverty. Its income tax changes disproportionately favour those on higher incomes and are of no benefit to the most vulnerable members of society. It even went as far as to create a new tax relief this year for rich aeroplane owners who wish to build themselves a hangar for their aeroplanes. In budget 2016, the Government allocated half of all available resources to tax cuts, thereby eroding the revenue base needed to deliver quality public services to tackle the crises in the health service and in respect of homelessness, housing, education and child care. Services that help the low-paid and most vulnerable hold their lives together and close the gap between rich and poor have been decimated. Social Justice Ireland, which was not quoted earlier by the previous speaker, has stated, "The poorest 10% in Ireland lost most since the onset of the crisis", yet the Government has cut taxes in this budget that benefit the top 20% of society who also hold 39.7% of the wealth. Where is the fairness in that?

The Government's measly, miserly cuts were implemented year in and year out and the Tánaiste's reign in office has been characterised by punishing the elderly for being old, people with disabilities for being disabled, the young jobseekers who could not find a job because none existed, lone parents for raising their children alone, carers for caring, mothers for having babies and children for being children. I remember when the Government came into office in 2011. It promised to mend the broken economy, protect the vulnerable and build a society based on fairness and equal citizenship. Nearly five years later, it has not delivered on any of these promises but along the way, it has lost its sense of social justice. All Members have seen is the Labour Party doing what the Labour Party does, namely, making promises it does not keep. As the Minister of State's colleague, Deputy Rabbitte has stated, is that not what everyone does during election time?

Interestingly, now that Members again face an election campaign, the Labour Party is again making promises. Budget 2016, of which this Bill forms part, is another cynical attempt at election game-playing. Can the Minister of State seriously believe the Labour Party can buy off the people it has most savagely cut and consistently targeted over its entire term in office with a few measly crumbs, a carrot, and some shiny baubles? Does the Labour Party really believe the people are willing to be bought off with a fiver here or a few row-backs there? I do not believe that will happen, as Labour Party Members will find soon enough. I have stood before the Tánaiste many times over the last four and a half years and in the Minister of State's case, over the past couple of years since he took office in the Department. I have begged, implored and appealed to their sense of compassion and social justice to reverse almost all the cuts the Government has brought in. It is only now, four and a half years later, that the Government has started a measly row-back and that it is doing so at all is a belated acceptance I was right and the Government was wrong to cut in the first place because in their speeches, members of the Government have admitted these people are the most vulnerable and that this money is spent in the local economy, which it would protect. If this is the case, why did the Government introduce these cuts? It is too late for many local businesses. They are closed because the very money on which they depended and which their customers received in social welfare payments was cut relentlessly by both the present Administration and the previous Government.

While I welcome the reversal of some of these cuts, I and others have seen the devastating impact they had on the ground on the real flesh-and-blood people, who are not figures or statistics, over the course of the last four and a half years. I have met people on a continuous basis, who have visited my office or who I have met on the street, who were in absolute distress. They were in distress because each time they sought hope, they have been hit by further cuts. The figures and statistics also bear out the despondency and need I witness on a daily basis. I have seen many constituents in tears because of despondency and a lack of hope because the present Government, in which they had some faith regarding living up to its promises when casting their votes four and a half years ago, did not do so.

The budget has failed to deliver an increase in the minimum social welfare payment, which has remained at €188 since 2011. Since then, the cost of living has risen and has eroded its value and the value of all social transfers, in effect leaving those dependent on social welfare to fall further behind even as far as the small, if any, recovery is concerned. The Government should at least have restored the buying power of those who depend on the minimum social welfare payments to pre-2011 levels to alleviate some of the hardship caused by the cumulative impact of five regressive budgets and the cuts to services on which they also are dependent.

As the Tánaiste has left the Chamber, I remind the Minister of State of some of the harshest cuts inflicted on the most vulnerable while he and the Tánaiste were at the helm. While the Government had the opportunity to take a different approach, instead of targeting the wealthy over the aforementioned four and a half years, it chose to cut illness benefit, maternity benefit, children’s allowance, the diet supplement scheme, fuel allowance, the household benefits package, the telephone allowance, State pension, respite care grant, bereavement grant, jobseeker's benefit and jobseeker's allowance, to name some benefits and allowances, each of which was cut to some degree. Sinn Féin has shown continuously in its fully-costed alternative budgets that there were alternatives to those cuts. Its priority was to see a reversal in the hardship and deprivation the Government has wrought upon working class communities in particular. Almost five years ago the Labour Party lambasted its current bedfellows with its “every little hurts” campaign. I tell Fine Gael and the Labour Party today that every little cut hurts those who are dependent on social welfare and they are correct in this regard; the problem is that the present Government compounded the cuts made by the Fianna Fáil-Green Party Government with its own cuts and went much further in many ways. I believe the people will understand that when the vote comes around again this year or early next year.

As for some previously mentioned cuts that have been implemented by the Government, I note that workers have already paid for illness benefit through their PRSI contributions but even that did not stop the Government from cutting three days' payment or €113 from it. In addition, the Government closed the diet supplement scheme, which had offered social welfare recipients suffering from conditions such as coeliac disease, stroke, throat cancer or motor neurone disease a small contribution towards the additional costs, which were recognised by everyone, associated with their medically necessary diets. As for the fuel allowance and household benefits package mentioned earlier, the Government cut these schemes, on which some of the poorest households including the elderly and people with disabilities depend to heat their homes, by six weeks or €120 in the case of fuel allowance. While the Government has gone a little way towards restoring these benefits, it has not extended the number of weeks back to the previous timeframe and therefore has not restored the benefit to its previous full value. Even with the increase announced, pensioners and those in receipt of social welfare still are down by €54.50. Let Members not forget the Government also imposed a water tax on top of that and for many people, and also imposed a property tax in case they were getting rich on social welfare.

Debate adjourned.